For my communities, this day will be remembered as "historic" not because rights were vindicated; but because of just how effortlessly this historic day trumped this historic year—the 25th anniversary of the
July 10, 2013. TL seated at the table presenting during the first-ever FCC workshop presenting testimony with some true allies in the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice including Alex Friedman, Cheryl Leanza and Charlie Sullivan. FCC staff look on from the foreground of the photo & an ASL interpreter can be seen in the background next to a large screen with live captions.
This is a piece I wrote on October 21, 2015, in the wake of the Federal Communication Commission's "historic" vote to cap predatory rates for calls for incarcerated people and their loved ones. This "historic" FCC's vote failed to ensure disability/deaf access, so the rights made available to millions by and through this vote did nothing for thousands of deaf/disabled people behind bars who are still completely disconnected.
Today the FCC voted to reduced predatory phone rates and ban abusive hidden fees on calls from jails and prisons beginning early next year. This is critical for incarcerated individuals and their loved ones--including at least 2.7 million children who have incarcerated parents. This historic order ends decades of abuse by huge private prison telephone companies that make millions by charging excessive rates to families who want to maintain contact with their incarcerated loved ones. This is also a huge victory for prison phone justice advocates who have fought for over a decade to end these excessive rates. Deaf and disabled people affected by mass incarceration, however, are not so fortunate.
Three years ago, I launched HEARD’s Deaf Prisoner Phone Justice Campaign to gain support for deaf and disabled people who have been denied access to telecommunications in our jails and prisons for decades. Despite the fact that deaf and disabled people have the least access to legal counsel and programs and services within our jails and prisons; and despite the fact that they are most targeted for physical and sexual abuse in prisons nationwide, they have the least access to telecommunications on the inside. Countless deaf incarcerated people have gone for years without telecommunication access.
To be clear, HEARD is an all-volunteer organization. I am a volunteer with a full-time job. No one who has supported this effort earns income from this advocacy. I cannot speak for others, but I started and continue this Campaign because I dream of one day living in a space where all people are treated with love, decency & dignity. I dream of “one day” being now. Right now. This very moment. We need not wait.
This vote represented an opportunity for our government to right a long-standing, egregious and deadly wrong.
Instead, I have again witnessed the government acknowledge the abuse, neglect and isolation; pat me on the back for reminding them of the existence of this violence; then look away—each federal agency excusing its own inaction by pointing to its own alleged “lack of authority” to make this right.
Their inaction has only emboldened those who are more concerned about profits than people. As a direct result, my communities are needlessly suffering and dying. Indeed, after three years of fighting for free phones (sounds ridiculous right?!?), I have come to the conclusion that our government is very comfortable perpetuating violence against the most vulnerable among us.
I apologize in advance for the disjointed nature of this post, but I need so badly to share these thoughts. Here is a brief look into the sacrifices that incarcerated people, family members of incarcerated individuals, advocates and attorneys have made; some of the lessons I have learned; ire for those who claim to represent deaf/disabled people who actually contributed to this injustice; and sincere gratitude to those who have supported my communities by practicing accountable advocacy during this heartbreaking journey.
CHOICES: LAW SCHOOL VS. LITERAL LIFE
I had just completed my fifth & final law school exam of the semester. It was a few hours before midnight on December 20, 2013, and the Federal Communications Commission’s midnight deadline was fast approaching. I had not even begun drafting HEARD’s comment. Most of my fellow phone justice advocates had submitted their comments hours earlier. As a full-time law student who doubled as the volunteer director of an organization serving hundreds of deaf and CODA incarcerated people (and their loved ones), early comment submission was a far-off dream.
This would be my fourth extensive comment to the FCC in less than a year explaining abuse and exploitation of deaf and disabled prisoners which necessitated telecommunications access and exposing prison telephone companies who continued to charge loved ones, legal counsel and advocates of deaf incarcerated individuals excessive rates for practically no communication.
Exhausted, I cried and cried. Then I cried some more.
I did not cry because I had just completed my fifth grueling law school exam—ending early despite desperately needing more time to work on it (this would end up being my lowest law school grade and I am still upset about that)—and wanted more than anything for my mind, eyes & body to rest;
I did not cry because I was being asked to find more ways to say exactly the same thing as I had in my previous three comments;
I did not cry because it seemed as though each FCC deadline always landed on the worst of days & my peers were taking one to three less courses than me notwithstanding all the work that I was voluntarily undertaking (the injustice of their internships counting as credits while my running an entire organization counted for none...);
I did not cry because a national deaf/disability organization took an interview with a national news outlet attempting to discuss deaf in prison issues mere days before the FCC vote but did not so much as mention this critically important issue or HEARD’s ongoing pathbreaking volunteer advocacy;
Nor did I cry because the disability rights and deaf rights communities continuously failed to even show up for our incarcerated community members whilst HEARD volunteers did all of the heavy lifting.
I cried because I knew that even as I sat and wrote this comment, that deaf people in prisons across the nation were becoming depressed, going insane, and attempting & completing suicide because our government was failing to ensure that they had equal access to something as basic as communication.
How else could I call injustice, injustice?
My partner, gave me much-needed space to grieve and release, then helped still and steel me for the task ahead. I worked for at least another six hours straight.
While all of my peers were off enjoying the “holidays” and the end of our penultimate semester of law school, I could not rest. I sat in the mock courtroom of my law school with tears streaming down my face, exhausted beyond measure, and I dictated and typed, typed and dictated--faster than I’d ever done before. I was deathly afraid that I would not be able to submit a comment by the deadline, so I worked on this comment as if there was no tomorrow--remembering that for many in my community this could very well be true if I did not find the right words.
I had to find the words that would move those who had the power to change this.
MY WORDS & THEIR TORTURE ARE APPARENTLY NOT ENOUGH
Letter is from a Deaf advocate at "Big Deaf Unit Huntsville." The letter came with 22 more surveys from deaf & hard of hearing men (we already had more than forty from this prison). This prison has more than sixty deaf/hh men & no videophones, CapTel, etc. IMAGE DESCRIPTION: half a sheet of college ruled paper is jaggedly torn in half [note: paper is a precious commodity in prisons, and often is hard to come by] with a hand-written letter that reads as follows: Here's more names of the Deaf prisoners who wish to participate in the HEARD's great cause . . . please add their names to the mailing list as well. We discussed about many other things that we believed that the TDCJ shall not fix the system, but shall engage in the improvement of the system, and many of us decided that we thought it would be best if we could focus on getting accessible telecommunications—videophone-first, as it's essential that you and I both establish an effective communication through videophone. Therefore, many of the Deaf prisoners will be able to communicate effectively with you and the other agents from HEARD to tell you more about our real basic needs. We look forward to hearing from you all and witnessing our new endeavors in our new journey to fight for our fair and rights. Thank you very much. [Signature Omitted]
Words fail. Again. And Again. And again.
After years of working on criminal legal system “reform”/dismantling, including several years on this Campaign—which quite simply asks our government to ensure that all people have access to counsel, and their loved ones—I have become ever more disheartened, dismayed and dejected.
And so, I have no more words.
No words adequately convey our government’s treatment of people with disabilities. This abuse, in our names, with our money—at the expense of the most vulnerable, for the benefit of multi-million dollar prison corporations—is ghastly and grotesque. The terrors are so many, that I do not know where to begin . . .
For decades, family members of deaf people, CODAs and disabled prisoners were paying the same—often higher—exorbitant rates for substantially less communication via antiquated and unreliable TTY technology that forced the user to type and communicate through a relay operator or with another person who has a TTY machine.
For example, in June 2015, a Deaf fiancé of a Deaf incarcerated man in Florida sent HEARD several phone bills for intrastate calls from her incarcerated partner. The bill was from CenturyLink, operated by the prison phone giant Securus.
The cost? $720.63 for 120 minutes.
That is $6 per minute for a call from Florida to Florida.
Keep in mind that American Sign Language is the first language for both of these individuals and that this was just one of four bills sent to us for TTY-to-TTY communication. In the outside world, we pay practically nothing for phone and video calls but the unregulated prison phone industry has exponentially increased rates. Moreover, prisons and prison phone companies charge deaf/disabled people additional fees to connect to relay, causing rates for deaf people to be even higher than the rates for hearing people and their loved ones.
All this, while yet other deaf people literally go years or decades with no telecommunication while incarcerated—most often because telephone systems of multi-million dollar telephone companies are not in compliance with federal disability rights laws (and because no federal agency tasked with enforcement of disability rights laws is willing to enforce our laws in prison settings). Instead, these prison telephone companies rely on voice-recognition, the ability to hear and dial specific codes within specific time parameters, the ability to comprehend and type English, and other grossly inaccessible methods of telecommunication.
As of the writing of this post, not one prison telephone company has a system that is compatible with current videophone technology used by the vast majority of the signing Deaf community in the United States.
Instead, prisons and prison phone companies refuse to provide any technology that would enable deaf or disabled incarcerated individuals to access telecommunication. Those that do, only do so after years of costly litigation. These cases are always won by Deaf/CODA incarcerated individuals but taxpayers foot the bill and deaf incarcerated people suffer mercilessly before, during and after the case.
HEARD’s DEAF PRISONER PHONE JUSTICE CAMPAIGN
The Deaf Prisoner Phone Justice Campaign illuminated these and other egregious civil and human rights violations by and through comments from HEARD and from hundreds of deaf prisoners and their loved ones who we organized all across the nation. We also mobilized and supported advocates, attorneys and organizations to submit comments on this important issue. The FCC even invited us to share our concerns with the FCC at two separate FCC workshops on reform of inmate calling services.
The heartbreaking comments from deaf incarcerated individuals spoke to the isolating impact of inaccessible technology, sky-high rates, and additional fees being charged to those using relay, that in most cases prevented them from communicating with anyone outside of prison. These comments also illustrated how the absence of videophones and captioned telephones prevent deaf prisoners from connecting to their loved ones. They also highlighted issues related to systemic abuse of deaf prisoners that necessitates communication with advocates and attorneys via sign language—a language that is wholly unique from English.
I have personally written six comments to the FCC on this issue emphasizing that in 2015, equal access to telecommunication for deaf incarcerated people and deaf family members of hearing incarcerated individuals, means, at minimum, access to captioned telephones, voice carry over, TTYs, and, most notably, videophones. I provided exhaustive commentary about Deaf Culture and communication; the egregious conditions of confinement for prisoners with disabilities and deaf prisoners nationwide; information on deaf wrongful convictions that stem from lack of access to counsel; about my inability to work on deaf wrongful conviction cases of my community members who are languishing for decades in our prisons depsite evidence of possible innocence; and about federal disability rights laws which establish clear and comprehensive prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of disability.
In my most recent of six comments on this issue to the FCC, I wrote this:
Before we respond to the Commission’s inquiries, we wish to call the Commission’s attention to the myriad comments on this issue from hundreds of deaf prisoners, and scores of preeminent national civil rights organizations and law firms, including the American Civil Liberties Union; the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice; the Human Rights Defense Center; the National Association of the Deaf; the National Disability Rights Network; the Prison Policy Initiative; Rochester Institute of Technology/National Technical Institute for the Deaf; Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld, LLP; the United Church of Christ, OC Inc., and signatories; Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs; and several public defender offices, among many others. Most commenters have never met, but the similarities among their comments are staggering and deeply distressing:
Deaf and disabled prisoners can not communicate with loved ones or report abuse, isolation and discrimination; attorneys and advocates can not effectively represent clients who use sign language as a primary or only language, or those who struggle to read or write English; and deaf and disabled prisoners report abuse most often after filing grievances about lack of access at prisons—including lack of access to telecommunications.
The record of manifest injustice is clear. We now make what we hope will be our final appeal to the Commission for justice.
And yet, here I am again, bitterly blogging because that was not my final appeal. Instead, our Federal Communications Commission and the United States Department of Justice have yet to take any meaningful action to protect the safety, sanity and lives of deaf and disabled prisoners.
Of course I am pleased with today’s historic vote that ends discriminatory and predatory business practices that have disproportionately affected incarcerated people with disabilities for decades, but equality demands more.
How can today’s order not address these serious and sweeping accessibility concerns—raised by hundreds of people related to the absence of videophone and other technology in all but one handful of prisons in this nation? How can the FCC and Department of Justice be justified in their failure to ensure that prison telecommunication is affordable and universally accessible?
Notwithstanding today’s vote, countless people with disabilities across this nation are still completely disconnected from loved ones and advocates.
THE HUMAN COSTS OF THESE FAILURES
Federal law protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities proscribes prisons from directly, or through contractual or licensing arrangements, denying people with disabilities the opportunity to participate in or benefit from a prison's activities, programs or services. The same laws require that prisons make reasonable modifications to policies, practices, or procedures when necessary to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability. In the case of a deaf, disabled or blind incarcerated people, equal access does not mean the same access as hearing prisoners.
In sum, prisons and prison phone companies must ensure that deaf prisoners and hearing prisoners with deaf loved ones can benefit from telephone services to the same extent as their hearing peers—and they must not charge more for receipt of this comparable service.
Again, the issue of equal access cannot be dismissed, especially considering the rate of disability found within our nation's incarcerated population. Enforcement of federal disability rights laws and regulations is necessary to reaffirm the right of all people to maintain contact with loved ones. To be quite frank, this telecommunications access issue and the failure to enforce the law is a symptom of a much larger systemic crisis of abuse, isolation and neglect of deaf and disabled prisoners.
Despite increased awareness about the plight of deaf inmates and the wide availability of low- and no-cost measures that can readily eliminate access barriers and provide safety to deaf incarcerated people, inequities and violence persist in jails and prisons nationwide. For instance, in the past year—even as the nation celebrates the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act—attorneys have successfully litigated civil rights cases on behalf of deaf prisoners in the District of Columbia, Kentucky & Maryland. This month, a judge in Illinois certified a class of deaf prisoners after a four-year effort by attorneys to gain equal access for deaf incarcerated individuals.
Attorneys should not have to sue for prisons to provide reasonable accommodations—including accessible telecommunication—to be provided for the most vulnerable people under their "care."
These systemic failures are not mere technical violations of federal law. These failures and the failures of government agencies to enforce the law are a direct threat to public health and safety. These failures transform the traditionally grim ordeal of incarceration into a nightmare of extreme language deprivation, physical and sexual abuse, and depressing solitude for deaf individuals. Mental illness, suicide, and an increased likelihood of violence and recidivism are among other unintended consequences of prison phone companies' greed and prisons' failures to ensure communication access for this population. In short, failure to provide equal access for deaf prisoners creates public safety risks for the deaf/disabled individual, other inmates, prison officials, and the public.
LESSONS LEARNED, HEARTFELT GRATITUDE AND KEY TAKEAWAYS
And so it is yet another bittersweet ending. A continuance of an agonizingly painful journey for justice’s sake.
My heart is so exceedingly heavy with the burden of having to carry this message to hundreds of people that I serve who are still completely disconnected from their loved ones despite today's "historic" vote. At the same time, I celebrate what we have been able to accomplish by coming together and working as one for the sake of our communities and our children.
I am forever grateful for the lessons that I have learned and the allyships that have been forged through this journey. It is my sincerest hope that United States Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission can come together to ensure that all people at every prison and jail in this nation have equal access to “just, fair and reasonable rates” that, only now will be experienced by millions of prisoners and their loved ones nationwide.
To the deaf/disability organization that took an interview from the USA Today just days after the FCC announced this upcoming vote but failed to try to tip the scales in our favor or to adequately discuss deaf prisoner justice—the issue for which you were being interviewed but about which you were unprepared to cover (so you should NOT have taken the damn interview!): Thanks for being more committed to your media op than our community; for putting profit over people; for not having done any real work on deaf prisoner justice issues or even having sufficiently followed HEARD’s advocacy to guide journalist into raising the profile of this critically important then-upcoming decision. Thanks for erasing years of all-volunteer community advocacy and struggle from the most marginalized in our communities (including literal life-risking advocacy by our incarcerated community) just so you could plaster the face of one of your several paid attorneys in the paper with inadequate commentary on what truly should be explained as nothing less than a “nationwide crisis of deaf access to justice.” A whole lot of good your photo is doing our community affected by mass incarceration. Consider yourselves responsible for this tragedy. I do not say this lightly: the blood, tears and pain of our community is on your hands.
To any journalist who did not do your due diligence: do diligence next time so you don't have to call me for the story about deaf prisoners going mad and committing suicide in the months and years to come.
To those I serve who have fought along side me from inside of jails and prisons across this nation, risking your life for that which what you know is your human right: I honor you and am so proud to know and love you. Thank you for supporting me. I am not sure how I will explain this situation or the fact that you will have to spend yet more years completely disconnected. Thank you in advance for comforting and encouraging me when I give you this heartbreaking nonsensical news.
To my brilliant phone justice allies who now care so deeply about deaf and disability access: Your active love and support has quite literally carried me through more nights than you know over the past three years. I am inspired by and in awe of your decades-long journey for justice with and for our incarcerated community and their loved ones. I am beyond humbled to call you allies and friends. My deepest gratitude goes to Ki'tay D. Davidson, Malkia Cyril, James Kilgore, Cheryl Leanza, Steven Renderos, Amalia Deloney, Paul Wright, Charlie Sullivan, Galen Baughman, Bernadette Rabuy, Susan Mizner, Lee Petro, Nick Szuberla, Brian Dolinar, Peter Wagner and numerous others.
To Commissioner Mignon Clyburn: Thank you for your steadfast leadership on this issue.
To Jason Tozier: Thank you for showing up to every FCC workshop and vote—including today’s—to practice active love and to demonstrate collective accountability for our incarcerated community and their loved ones.
I will never comprehend the oppression and violence perpetuated against my communities at the whim of our “government.” I will never be able to reconcile how we can be okay with concessions in civil and human rights struggles that always come at the expense of those at the margins of the margins—how on this "historic" day millions of people will rightly gain access to "just, reasonable and fair rates," unless they happen to be disabled or deaf. And I will never understand why a lone student-activist (who has been fighting this manifest injustice so long that they are now a professor-activist) cares more about the safety, sanity, human rights and lives of deaf and disabled incarcerated people than our very own government.
There is, however, one thing I am sure of. For my communities, this day will be remembered as “historic” not because rights were vindicated; but because of just how effortlessly this historic day trumped this historic year—the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
I dream incessantly of justice. Hoping to calm my mind & stir yours through this freedom space.